KARACHI — Sherry Rehman, a high-profile politician under threat for her call to reform Pakistan's blasphemy law, was appointed as the new ambassador to Washington on Wednesday, a day after her predecessor was ousted at the apparent behest of the country’s powerful military.
Rehman, a human rights campaigner and former journalist from the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, will replace Husain Haqqani, who was accused of crafting an offer from the government to the U.S. administration, to rein in Pakistan's military and spy agency, in return for American support against a feared coup.
Rehman is a strong personality with liberal views, not the sort of personality typically favored by the armed forces, suggesting that the civilians fought to keep some say in handling Pakistan's most important foreign relationship. But her stance on national security issues are much less likely to trouble Pakistan's military establishment, who had long gunned for Haqqani, a former Boston University professor. The former Washington envoy had written a book detailing links between Pakistan’s army forces and jihadist groups.
Rehman, 50, lives under protection after receiving numerous death threats over unsuccessful legislation she introduced to parliament to reform the country’s widely abused blasphemy laws. Earlier this year, two other politicians with the Pakistan Peoples Party were gunned down by extremists over the same issue. Following those killings, the debate in Pakistan over blasphemy was snuffed out. She has also helped steer through legislation against domestic violence and honor killings.
She served for a year as information minister with the government, before quitting in 2009 over difference with President Asif Zardari about restrictions on the media.
Cyril Almeida, a newspaper columnist, said that her relations with the military were "perhaps not friendly, but no overt animosity either."
Pakistan’s military jealously guards its near monopoly over foreign and national security policies, making them deeply suspicious of the direct access Haqqani had enjoyed to the top levels of the U.S. government.
The glamorous Rehman will be working for Pakistan’s much younger but equally stylish foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar, who caused a stir with the chic Birkin designer handbags she takes on foreign trips. Rehman is also a possessor of Birkins.
A graduate of Smith College, Rehman has a tough assignment ahead, fixing the battered imagine of Pakistan in the U.S., while keeping her own country’s military on board.
Haqqani was forced to resign Tuesday over a memo delivered to the top U.S. military official, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, in which a proposal was supposedly made in May by the government of President Asif Zardari to disband an arm of the military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency — the wing said to be in charge of dealing with the Taliban and other Islamic extremists. In return, the memo allegedly asked for the U.S. to warn Pakistan’s military against staging a coup.
Haqqani had always denied being behind the memo, which was sent by an American businessman of Pakistani origin but contained no evidence that it was a genuine offer from Zardari. The memo, which caused a storm in Pakistan after it was revealed last month, had reached Mullen just after U.S. special forces found and killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Mullen later stated that an insurgent group in Afghanistan allied to the Taliban was a "veritable arm" of the ISI.
Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, had demanded Haqqani’s resignation, following intense behind-the-scenes pressure from the military to sack him, amid accusations of treason. An investigation is now underway to get to the bottom of the controversy, dubbed, "memogate."
Haqqani seemed relieved it was all over, saying on Twitter on Wednesday morning. "Ah! To wake up in my motherland, without the burden of conducting Pakistan's most difficult external relationship."
A think tank established by Rehman, the Jinnah Institute, published a report this year trying to explain Pakistan’s much-vilified aims in Afghanistan. Rehman wrote in September that ties between Washington and Islamabad could be repaired "if there is an appreciation in American policy circles that Pakistan’s actions in the region may be motivated by fear rather than ambition."
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Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.